Monday, March 15, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 6: Made in U.S.A. (1966); 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)

Day 6 once again offered a strong pair of films, one of which I've had a pretty massive change of opinion on.

Made in U.S.A. (1966); viewing: Second

Godard's 1966 Made in U.S.A. received a single showing in the U.S. at the '66 New York Film Festival, before settling into obscurity in the states for over 40 years, tied up in legal matters over adaptation rights, before finally being given deluxe treatment from the Criterion Collection with a superb DVD release in 2009. The film (dedicated in its credits to directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller) is supposedly based off the novel The Jugger by the late, great crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake, and opens with Paula Nelson (Anna Karina, in her last starring role for Godard), investigating the death of her lover in an undeniably French version of Atlantic City (inhabited by characters named Mizoguchi and Richard Nixon and streets named Preminger), having arrived there to meet him and learning that he has very likely been killed. Paula sets out for answers, and encounters many shady individuals along the way, eventually getting drawn deeper and deeper into a thick web of political conspiracy that produces more mysteries than answers as the body count steadily ratchets up. This ubiquitous sense of ambiguity and mounting inscrutability recalls the other major influence on Made in U.S.A., Howard Hawks classic film-noir The Big Sleep.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't care much for this film the first time I saw it. It was one of the first few Godard's I watched, and while the slim running time (85 minutes on the dot) and vibrant imagery got me through the viewing, the plot utterly lost me halfway through, thus turning on the autopilot and leaving me with really nothing to hold onto when all was said and done. Being much more familiar with Godard's style now and armed with the knowledge that you actually have to - get this- pay really close attention during these films, I settled down for another viewing with a clean slate and open mind, ready to absorb every image and sound produced from this challenging work. And challenging it is. In fact more so than any other Godard I've seen to this point, Made in U.S.A. demands that you pay rapt attention to every detail; and even then, like The Big Sleep, I'm fairly sure you're not really supposed to understand everything that's happened. What I suspect made the film much more digestible for me this time around was being able to somewhat separate the stuff you're supposed to grasp from the stuff you just have to let go. Coming at it from this angle - and subsequently not overwhelming myself with the desire to understand everything- resulted in what was, quite surprisingly, one of the breezier and more sheerly enjoyable viewing experiences I've had during this marathon yet.

This is not to suggest that there isn't significant weight attached to this work; if Godard was just getting his feet wet in the political pool with Pierrot le fou and Masculin, feminin, then he dunks his head completely under the water with Made in U.S.A. Godard's anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist sentiments are as distinct as ever, and the film is very much wrapped up in the political happenings of the moment, with quite a few references to matters such as the Mehdi Ben Barka affair. Occasionally the movie even devotes single shots lasting a few minutes to a simple tape recorder playing back a long winded, leftist diatribe spoken by Paula's dead lover, Richard (the voice of Godard). Even when some of this stuff went over my head, Made in U.S.A. is so ripened with unique, stunning imagery and the most complex sound design I've heard in a Godard picture yet, that on a purely sensory level I was never less than fully engaged. But make no mistake about it, there are plenty of wonderful (and wonderfully coherent) sequences contained in Made in U.S.A., and while it may not be the most accessible Godard film of the 60's, I think its dense, challenging nature is very much a part of its ultimate appeal. It's a film you have to work with, but it makes the rewards all the more sweeter. I am shocked at how much a second viewing changed my feelings on this work.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
(1967); viewing: Second

Here, on the other hand, is a film that needed no second viewing from me to confirm its greatness; however, watching 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her for a second time did in fact prove to be every bit as rich and mystical of an experience as I had remembered. Filmed at the same time as its predecessor Made in U.S.A., 2 or 3 Things... is ostensibly about Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady), a Parisian housewife and mother who doubles as a prostitute during the days to supplement her consumerist-driven desires. She treats both the dishes and clients as equal tasks, handling each with a quick and cold efficiency, and while she's not giving herself (and the viewer) dense philosophical abstractions to ponder, Godard whisks the camera away from her to show us a Paris under constant reconstruction, and to whisper into our ears his own thoughts and musings on everything ranging from politics to groceries to the very creation of the Earth itself. The latter being contained in an absolutely brilliant sequence where Godard ruminates and quotes literature over a closeup shot of a swirling cup of coffee that seems to contain no less than the entirety of the universal cosmos.

It's a difficult film for me to talk about quite frankly, so rich and layered is it with ideas and digressions and gestures that even after two viewings, I feel as though it's not nearly enough to grasp everything being presented here. But it's effect on me has been profound nonetheless; rarely does one see a movie that is so totally engrossing on both an intellectual and sensual level as 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is; it's borderline hypnotic in its effect. The film opens in bold style, first introducing us to Vlady the actress and giving us a few details about her, before cutting to introduce her now in character as Juliette, and one gets the sense that they could likely be one and the same, and that it may not matter which we perceive her as, and that at any point in the film it very well could be either of them speaking to the camera. The movie also has fun playing with the question of who the eponymous "Her" could be; Godard announces in the opening that it is, of course, Paris. But the subsequent playful introduction of Vlady/Janson immediately calls this into question, and the sheer scope of the film's subjects may even suggest the the "Her" could refer to something far grander. This film is also notable to me for, among other things, introducing the exquisite Juliet Berto, for whom I will always harbor a monumental crush on. It's only fitting that her sole sequence, in which she has a conversation with Julliete's husband in a diner, is one of the very best in the movie. 2 or 3 Thing I Know About Her is an absolutely wonderful film, perhaps the most beautiful and poetic Godard I've seen yet, and I count it as the third true masterpiece I've watched at this point in the marathon after Contempt and Pierrot le fou.


Ed Howard said...

Obviously this pairing makes perfect sense since, as you note, Godard made these films simultaneously. I've always thought that, given that method of construction, Godard was consciously dividing himself in half here: Made in USA gets the genre pastiche material (and wound up being one last kiss-off and goodbye to the Hollywood genre fare that inspired his earlier films) while 2 or 3 Things is more philosophical and essayistic in its construction. Not that Made in USA is a simple film, by any means, but I've always thought of it as a somewhat lesser work in the context of Godard's late 60s run. It's a throwback in some respects, even as its especially overt political content looks forward to La Chinoise. I like your comparison of it to The Big Sleep, which is salient because both films have plots so complex, so convoluted, that the plots become texture more than anything else: there's a certain point at which too much plot circles back around to become no plot at all, and the plot ceases to really matter.

2 or 3 Things, on the other hand, is an utter masterpiece, beautiful and affecting and surging with ideas. It's a great parody of consumer culture, and a continuation of Godard's interest in sex as a commodity. The image of the prostitute's client having the girls run around with bags on their heads is a great illustration of the absurdity of fetishizing sex, distancing it from the realm of human interaction to just another mechanical procedure.

And of course, Juliet Berto, and the coffee swirls, and the similar closeup of a cigarette tip's red glow. Just a wonderful, exciting film.

Drew said...

Thanks a lot for the wonderful, thoughtful comment Ed.

I would have to agree with you that Made in U.S.A. is, at the end of the day, minor Godard in comparison to some of the works I've seen lately from this period. But what an enjoyable film it is; I'm thinking of scenes like the one in the cafe with Marianne Faithfull singing "As Tears Go By" in the background, a particularly playful, charming sequence that resonated with me quite a bit after this viewing.

I have nothing more to add to your wonderful description of 2 or 3 Things; needless to say, we both agree. A sensational masterpiece with so many perfect little touches.

Stephen said...

I was just going through Made in USA looking for a particular shot.

For me it is Godard unrestrained and lacking in a certain nuance. Though, as you and Ed say, there is always something to take from a Godard film. His eye for a striking image is unmatched. There are directors who go for the painterly by copying lighting and colours from famous artists. Godard's compositions have the beauty of great paintings but do not look like them.

I hope that made sense...

Erich Kuersten said...

Hey Drew! Nice essays! I am mind-blown you are able to handle this much Godard over such a short time. I would either be a totally enlightened intellectual or a homicidal ant-Marxist by now... and irritable either way, but you seem fine, just the former..

I like Ed's comments and the way everyone remembers and cherishes certain fleeting moments in a Godard film, as their very own, our personal links, the way, say an overused cinematic "mythic" moment like the end of Casablanca is practically nobody's anymore, it's become so universal

So I can't wait til you get up to those 1980s Studio Canal films that recently got released on LG: Passion, Detective, First Name Carmen and Oh Woe is Me. I was expecting them to be a real dull night at The Angry Marxist Rant-a-thon, and instead realized he'd somehow reclaimed his joi de vivre - at least until the 90s, I haven't seen his recent stuff...

I've yet to pull myself through a first viewing of 2 or 3 things--found it unbelievably tedious with all those apartment complex exteriors, but I did watch and write about Made in USA, href = "">here, if interested. Man, I'm glad in your essay that you stress the amount of viewings of each film. You are right that his films are better the second time, even the fifth time they seem new. Also, set and setting are important. You have to avoid seeing it with uptight short attention-span friends who hate subtitles. I was lucky to see some first with my socialist-intellectual Argentine filmmaker ex-wife, she acclimated my shrunk and drunk american mind and got me to sit through a faded streaky rented VHS of A Woman is a Woman, and I was hooked.

For me, it's best to watch them sometimes in installments, or with breaks, or as background, so you can stand up and interact with the screen, the way Godard likes it! When someone is putting their hands in front of a screen in the movie within the movie, for example, that's when you do it too - and surf the meta (especially if no one else is around, and you're not filming it either, so however clever and meta it is you know it wont last beyond that one moment and for that one person, you.)

I hope that made sense...

Drew said...

Thanks for the great comments Stephen and Erich, and thanks for stopping by!

Erich I really appreciate the kind words, it is no doubt a little more taxing than I may have expected going through all of these films in such a short period. In fact, I've had to slow my pace down a bit, for the sake of sanity, sleep and just to make the days more manageable. But I am finding it a highly rewarding experience.

I really can't wait to reach the 80's period, I've heard tremendous things about those films.

Thanks for the link to your review of Made in U.S.A., I will definitely be checking that out. 2 or 3 Things... is of course a very deliberate and deliberately paced film, and I can see even a seasoned cinephile losing patience with it, but for me it has so much poetic beauty compressed into its short running time and is so fluid with its ideas that it really struck me as nothing short of a masterpiece.

Also love the idea of surfing the meta, may have to conduct an entire second marathon completely devoted to that method ;)